Allison Leonard is a warden with RSPB Scotland who looks after five reserves in Central Scotland, including the Forth Islands Fidra and Inchmickery. Allison brings us this update on how different seabirds are faring in the Forth this year and tells us about a couple of exciting opportunities for you to get out and see them!
Seabirds of the Forth
It can’t be easy raising your young whilst perched precariously on the edge of a cliff, being bombarded with everything that the Scottish weather can throw at you. But each year thousands upon thousands of seabirds manage it. The 2016 season seems to have been a mixed one for the birds in the Firth of Forth though, with some species showing an almost 100% increase in numbers, whilst others have fared less well.
Those not doing so well include the UK’s albatrosses and fulmars, as well as kittiwakes, razorbills and guillemots, with numbers nearly 20% down on 2015. However, the number of eider duck nests across the Forth has gone up by nearly 75%, with over 100 more nests than last year. All three gull species found regularly in the Forth have also increased, with herring gulls more than doubling in number.
One seabird, which is harder to count thanks to the fact it nests underground, is the puffin but this year’s monitoring has shown some very encouraging results. This colourful little bird, which last year was added to the IUCN red list of birds considered to be facing the risk of extinction, spends its winters floating in large flocks on the sea before heading back to shore in summer to breed.
On the southern edge of the Forth, they mainly nest on the islands of Fidra, an RSPB Scotland reserve, and Craigleith. In the past, both of these sites have shown a massive crash in numbers, which we know is due to an infestation of tree mallow. This is a plant which is not native to the area, but was probably introduced a very long time ago, perhaps as far back as the 1600s by soldiers on the Bass Rock.
Lighthouse keepers may also have planted it, or just used it for both its medicinal properties and the fact that the large, soft leaves make good toilet paper (when you have nothing else to use and can’t just pop to the shops!). Tree Mallow didn’t spread to Fidra until the 1990s.
It can grow up to three metres tall, and grows so densely it blocks the entrance to the puffin burrows and prevents them from breeding. But thanks to the hard of work of many, many volunteers over the last few years (through RSPB Scotland and SOS puffin) the tree mallow is slowly being reduced across the islands, allowing puffin numbers to return to pre-mallow numbers.
With a 2% increase in occupied burrows on Fidra this year, we can safely say that our management is having a very positive impact on puffin numbers in the Forth.
For anyone interested in getting closer views of all the wonderful seabirds of the Forth, you can join RSPB Scotland for two special seabird cruises with the Maid of the Forth. This Sunday (26 June) there will be a three-hour tour of the Inner Forth islands (departing 6pm from Hawes Pier, South Queensferry).
While on Saturday 9 July, there’s a two-hour cruise aboard the 'Seafari Explorer' to the islands off the East Lothian coast. This trip in particular is not to be missed if you want to see the world's largest gannetry out on the Bass Rock. It departs North Berwick harbour at 6pm. For more information and booking see either www.maidoftheforth.co.uk or http://www.seafari-edinburgh.co.uk.